As a young Reds fan growing up in Chicago, Wilson spent much of his elementary school years making sketches of catchers in his notebooks and worshipping Johnny Bench. While Wilson may not have developed the Hall of Fame skills his idol did, he did become an all-around backstop whose defense was rated among the best in the game for a time.
Though initially drafted by the New York Mets when he graduated high school, Wilson opted to spend some time at the University of Minnesota to study mechanical engineering. But by junior year, the only tools he was interested in were the tools of ignorance. Wilson entered the amateur draft in 1990 and was promptly selected in the first round by the Cincinnati Reds.
With the big-league club practically drooling over his fine defensive skills and patience at the plate, Wilson barely had to wait two seasons before his first call-up. But in a surprise move, just as he was primed to take over the full-time job for Cincy, the Reds shipped him with Bobby Ayala to the Seattle Mariners for Bret Boone and Erik Hanson in November 1993.
Replacing Dave Valle behind the plate in 1994, Wilson struggled offensively with the M’s, hitting just .216, and ended up splitting time in 1995 with Chad Kreuter and Chris Widger. With the panic of his first full season behind him, Wilson’s natural talents emerged, and he hit .278 with nine homers in ’95, followed up by more playing time, 18 home runs, and an All-Star nod in ’96. More conscious of pulling the ball the following year, Wilson got off to a fine start, hitting .349 in April 1997 before settling in with a .270 average over the season. His defense was once again the jewel of his crown, as he threw out 43 percent of basestealers and led the league in putouts at catcher. If there were any doubt of his position as the permanent Mariners catcher, it evaporated when both Widger and prospect Jason Varitek were traded away as Wilson went on to catch the fourth-most games in the bigs in ’97.
Torn knee ligaments in 1998 sidelined Wilson for a month and a half, and his overall production plummeted. His offense would continue a steady slide for the next couple of years, intensified by the Mariners’ move to the pitcher-friendly Safeco Field in 2000. In fact, Wilson’s offensive play was so poor that year that manager Lou Piniella began to platoon him with Tom Lampkin until Seattle acquired veteran Joe Oliver to take over backstop duties. Though he was still a fine defensive catcher, despite losing a little arm speed, the only thing keeping Wilson secure was a three-year contract he had signed with Seattle before the season began.
In March 2001, with Oliver committed to the New York Yankees, Wilson burst out from the gates ready to hammer the ball and regain his spot in the lineup as well as his manager’s confidence. “I had some mechanical problems,” the catcher admitted, noting his 2000 slump. “After awhile, those turned into mental problems.” Though he impressed enough to get his job back in spring training, Wilson experienced just a slight production increase and began to share time with Lampkin behind the plate once again.